BISHOP BILL WRIGHT: Erasmus and Luther

On a recent Sunday, I was with the good folks of Tighes Hill and I was delighted to hear of a gathering that they had held the day before, reflecting on Jesus through artistic images of him down the ages.

They gave me a bookmark they had made for the occasion, with a quote from the Preface to Erasmus’ Greek New Testament of 1516: “These holy pages... will give you Christ himself, talking, healing, dying, rising, the whole Christ in a word... He would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes.” I recalled another quote from the same source: “I want the lowliest woman to read the gospels... I would like to hear a farmer sing scripture as he ploughs.”

Desiderius Erasmus is not so well known today, but he was once the most famous man in Europe, a few kings excepted. A renowned scholar, he was also a religious reformer who promoted a simple gospel Christianity, not least by pouring scorn on the church establishment, on popular superstitions, on monks and pilgrimages. He got away with it because of the strong patronage he always received from like-minded popes, bishops, kings and universities. He may have been the star-turn of the new thinking, but he was not an isolated voice. The tragedy of his life was that his kind of reform was swept up and supplanted by a more dogmatic and divisive movement. He thus became an exam question for generations: “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched. Comment.”

So my friends at Tighes Hill, by getting me thinking about Erasmus, reminded me of a discussion at a recent meeting of bishops about what we should do in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses against Indulgences, the traditional start of the Protestant Reformation. It is a fact of present experience that western Christians are divided into about 1.1 billion Catholics and perhaps 800 million others who can roughly be grouped as Protestant. The events that initiated that split can’t be passed over without a commemoration.

You may recall that Luther was a young monk very troubled in conscience that he was never good enough, never sorry enough, never did enough penance to make up for his sins. He was very afraid of God. Appointed to teach theology, he gradually learned from St Paul that his salvation was a free gift from God, not something he had to deserve, and that the only way to be ‘justified’ was to have faith (trust) in Christ. He was, therefore, appalled to find his parishioners being told that they could buy salvation, in the form of indulgences, from the pope’s agents. Protesting stridently about that, he was driven in debate to deny the authority of the pope and church, so that he came to accept only the authority of the Bible. Then he began to reject teachings about the Mass and sacraments that he considered contrary to the Scripture. Refusing to submit either to the pope or the emperor, he nonetheless survived to lead a breakaway church and inspired many other breakaways, both from Rome and from his own movement. We look back and see that he led a reform when reform was certainly needed. We look back and lament that intransigence, Luther’s and Rome’s, turned that reform into a lasting division of Christ’s people. How do you commemorate that?

One aspect of the question bemuses the bishops somewhat. We have heard very little as yet of any plans by the Protestant churches. The Lutherans naturally have some, but they are a small presence in Australia. And although Luther was a big influence on the early reformers in England, later Anglicans either became convinced Calvinists and critical of Luther or they turned back to more Catholic ways. Other traditional English churches look to other founding fathers. The Pentecostal churches barely acknowledge any historical precedents. And so it goes.

I think the 500th anniversary of Luther should be an occasion to do all we can in the cause of better understanding and friendship between churches, and a time to redouble our prayers and work for Christian unity. Anyway, we shall see what emerges next year.

In the February Aurora, I speculated that the Newcastle Herald would cover a particular story mainly by citing comments from ‘the usual suspects’. I intended that phrase to allude to the journalistic practice of finding reliable commentators to suit a certain purpose.  I regret using the term and certainly did not mean to imply that there was anything ‘suspect’ about any of those people to whom the Herald might turn for comment. I regret that such an inference was drawn by some, and I apologise to those who think I might have had them in mind and intended to disparage them. I did not. If I were writing the piece again I would use some such phrase as ‘the people from whom the Herald regularly seeks comment on these matters’. No reflection on the character or credibility of those people was intended.

Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.